Peter Helps

23 February 2011


DR. PETER HELPS. MB BS MBAcC Dip.Ac Nanjing Dip Ac for Children.

Peter Helps was an exceptional doctor and an exceptional man. I was privileged to know him, both as a colleague and as a friend, for more than 30 years and my regard for him as a human being grew over that time.

 He was born in 1943 in the East End of London to working class parents where life was hard and, at times, brutal. He spent the first ten years of his life living in an ancient block of flats between the Grand Union Canal and Harrow Road. The canal stank, the road was polluted and he rarely played outside. The family then moved to the Crawley New Town. To someone of Peter’s sensitive disposition this was heaven, within walking distance of the country where he could delight in Nature, observing it in detail rather than merely indulging in reverie. A friend of his from that era described him as being “not like the other kids, not playing marbles but always ahead of the game. Always thinking outside the box and greatly principled.”

  He left school with virtually no qualifications and was told he lacked intelligence but became a draughtsman, then went back to night school to do his O and A levels, becoming a mature medical student at the University College Hospital, London. He qualified as a doctor in 1971 and did voluntary work in Africa for the Red Cross. On his return to this country he took various locum posts at a number of London hospitals. He planned to do more VSO work, this time in Vietnam.

  He met his future wife, the beautiful Gretta, in 1974 and they moved to the Shetland Isles where his first daughter, Vaila, was born. He worked there as a GP for a year and then obtained a post at Aberystwyth hospital. In 1979 he became head of A & E at Sussex Royal County where he excelled, using his medical skills and wicked sense of humour to care for his patients. He once told me that this was real medicine-allopathy at its best where you could make a difference to people’s lives. When the politics of medicine changed in the mid 1980’s he became disillusioned. Despite having run the A and E department for some years, when the culture of consultants arrived with correct letters after their name, and the post was put out to tender he was not even shortlisted. He could not tolerate the arrogance of medics who put their position before that of their patients. So, in 1985 he became a General Practitioner in Brighton and Hove. He complained that the time allocated for each patient was insufficient to do a proper and thorough diagnosis. Equally he would point out that many patients could avoid seeing him if only they ate sensibly, drank less and did some exercise. He was known as non-medicating doctor, often recommending life-style changes or seeing a Chinese Herbalist. He was renowned for his dapper appearance, particularly his fondness for waistcoats.

  He started having acupuncture in 1981,not because of any physical symptoms, but because of a need to explore his own spirituality. He had been meditating regularly for some years. He had, like our mutual friend the author and medical homeopath Dr. Andrew Lockie, been interested in studying psychiatry when he was younger but both of them had felt that the western medical model was too mechanistic. Peter was encouraged by a further medical friend, Dr. Dave Bassett to study acupuncture. He initially attended a few weekends with Dr. Julian Kenyon in Southampton and quickly put his newfound knowledge into practice. He obtained good results, treating both NHS and private patients but soon realised that this approach was limited. He decided to study further and enrolled at the London School of Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine on the advice of Peter Deadman. He completed his training in Nanjing in 1992.He collaborated on a book with Maggie Tisserand, Stress: The Aromatic Solution, published by Hodder and Stoughton.

  He retired from General Practice in 2006 but had worked with Mazin Al-Khafaji, the well -known Chinese Herbalist and author, since 2000 and continued there two days a week doing acupuncture. Mazin fondly recalls the lunchtimes where Peter would talk about all things medical and other passions of his. He cared deeply about his patients and was doggedly determined in trying to get them better. He had a dexterity, both physical and mental, which he brought to everything he did, whether that was surgery or acupuncture He had always been a keen angler and in later life took up chasing the fly. For him, fishing was not about catching fish, it was about being with and in Nature. He loved the patient solitude and camaraderie of this activity. He liked nothing more than setting up a tepee in the garden and playing with grandchildren, upon whom he doted.

 My last memory of Peter was of him teaching my son, Tadeusz- his godson- to cast the line. He patiently instructed him on the front lawn of his house. Inevitably the fly got caught in bushes, clothing, hair and anything else in range. They both laughed a lot but Peter knew when to leave him alone to practice. Some weeks later he took us both out fishing. Peter was in his element: instructive, informative, patient, full of amusing anecdotes, going into great detail about different flies and when to use them. We caught nothing all day but when Peter teased one in he showed Tadeusz how to bring in and net the trout. Once landed he promptly gave it to him for his supper. That typified Peter- always generous, caring, ever helpful. His patients and friends loved him and his funeral will be packed to the rafters.

He leaves behind his wife Gretta, his two daughters Vaila and Alwen and four grandchildren. Megan, Toby, Joshua and Bethany . Our thoughts and sympathies are with them.

Marek Urbanowicz.